Even a quick look at Saturday’s UFC Moscow main card tells quite an ageless story. Mark Hunt. Andrei Arlovski. Thiago Alves. Alexey Oleynik. These gentlemen have all been around. They’ve seen some things. In other words, they’re old. Not old old, of course, just past the average age of elite professional athletes. In some cases, far past the average age. That in itself is an achievement. To rise and excel is one thing; to rise, excel and sustain is something else entirely. Yet here we are, hours from watching Hunt and Oleynik —combined age: 85! — throw down in a main event in 2018.
Because heavyweights seem to have the half-life of uranium, it does not seem all that surprising to us to observe these ol’ dogs still barking, even if it remains something of a marvel to witness. At 44, Hunt is the elder statesman of the crew, an iron-handed banger who is consistently at odds with the UFC yet continually shows up on fight night with the fire of a teenager.
Nearly every Hunt fight is guaranteed to fire up an arena with the possibility of electricity. His December 2013 draw with Antonio Silva remains one of the most fearsome, violent and courageous heavyweight MMA fights ever witnessed. He once one-shot KO’d the iron-chinned Roy Nelson. And even when he’s on the wrong end of a lopsided fight, such as his February loss to Curtis Blaydes, every Hunt punch brings with it some sizzle, the fight world understanding that any landed strike could be the end.
For many of these fighters, a career end could truly be one punch away. Oleynik is 41, Arlovski is 39, and Arlovski’s opponent Shamil Abdurakhimov is 37. Alves, who turns 35 next month, is the baby of the group, yet one with scores of miles, wars, and surgeries behind him.
It is a collection long on accolades and short on time.
Now the question is, what do they have left to offer? Hopefully the answer is at least fun. Few stay in the game this long without truly enjoying what they do, and a lot of that is visible in their performances. These are, after all, guys with flair. Hunt has basically trademarked the walkoff knockout. Alves was the master of 1,000 leg kicks. Oleynik delivered the Ezekiel choke to the UFC. Arlovski brought that sick fang mouthpiece.
But presence does not equal performance, and while each boasts an undeniable list of accomplishments — Arlovski a former UFC champ, Oleynik 56 career wins, etc. — results have been mixed for most of the group over the last few years. Since the start of 2017, Hunt has gone 1-2, losing to Alistair Overeem, knocking out Derrick Lewis, and then most recently falling to Blaydes. Alves has lost three of his last four. On the other hand, Oleynik has won three of his last four and Arlovski has won two of his last three. They have all refused to go quietly.
The loudest (and longest) of those goodbyes certainly belongs to Hunt — the oldest fighter on the UFC roster — who will have only one fight remaining on his contract after the completion of Saturday’s event. The Kiwi legend has railed against the UFC, against performance-enhancing drug users, against Dana White. Yet to the promotion’s credit, they have kept him in high-profile bouts while refusing to close the door on a continued business relationship. In July, White told Australia’s Daily Telegraph that he would consider an extension for Hunt with a win over Oleynik. Still, you have to wonder whether Hunt will contemplate it, move to another organization, or simply retire.
If he stays, he would remain in a division that is aging right along with him. It has a 39-year-old champion, Daniel Cormier, and the average age of the top 15 behind is nearly 34. That’s despite the fact that it’s seen kids like Blaydes (27) and Tai Tuivasa (25) join their ranks within the last year. That’s the reason Oleynik and Arlovski can still see a future there, too.
Things aren’t so clear for Alves, who tried a move down to lightweight before coming right back to his old welterweight stomping grounds. While the average age of a top-15 welterweight (32.1) isn’t far off his age, Alves will need to discover a way to turn around the inconsistency that’s marked his career since losing his bid to win the championship. That nine-year stretch of time is likely no anomaly. Since then, he’s gone just 5-6 while battling multiple injuries. Tomorrow, he battles Alexey Kunchenko, who will be making his UFC debut. On the positive side for Alves, Kunchenko is also 34. On the negative, Kunchenko is 18-0. It’s not a setup fight, but the optics of the pairing may give you a queasy feeling.
In a way, that’s where we’re always going to be with fighters who have competed so long. Oleynik has been competing in combat sports since 1996, Hunt since 1998, Arlovski since 1999 and Alves since 2001. Those aren’t just long careers; those are entire eras.
These men are the last of a breed, and so it is fitting that they share the arena on the same night somewhere near the end of their respective incredible journeys. Somewhere near the end. For now, the ol’ dogs still have some barking to do.